Each culture has different attitudes and expectations about gender roles and gender identity. Some cultures are much more strict about the separation of gender roles and the ways that people of different genders interact with each other, while others are more open and flexible about the same issues. Learning the societal and cultural differences that may exist around gender and modifying your behavior accordingly is part of understanding and immersing yourself in your host culture. Before you go abroad, it is a good idea to prepare yourself and learn more about your host country's perceptions of gender, so that you can understand potential issues, challenges, and differences you might encounter.
Questions to consider
You can start thinking about the issues of gender abroad by researching and thinking about the answers to these questions:
- What gender roles are considered typical in my host country?
- What are my host country's perceptions and expectations of men, women, and transgender and nonbinary people? Are there rules or laws relating to gender? How will this affect me- including my mental and physical wellbeing and safety?
- What are my host country's stereotypes about Americans of my gender?
- How do men treat women in my host country? How do women treat men? How are transgender and nonbinary people treated?
- Does gender play a role in social, economic, or political power in my host country? Does one gender hold rights or privileges that other genders don't?
- Does my host country have specific expectations about how different genders dress or present themselves?
- What are my personal values and how to they compare with my host country's values surrounding gender?
- Does my host university have specific rules regarding gender (for example, separate-gender residence halls, rules about guests of different genders in housing, curfews for female students but not for male students, etc.)? Am I comfortable living with those rules?
Cultural norms regarding interaction between genders
The expectations and norms regarding dating and male-female interaction vary widely from country to country.
- In some countries, male-female friendships are less acceptable.
- While in Vermont and some other places in the US it is normal to smile at a stranger while walking past or to make small talk with strangers in public, in some cultures this is less accepted or may be viewed as an invitation for further interaction that was not actually intended.
- Public displays of affection are viewed very differently from culture to culture. In some countries they are very accepted and common. In others, even holding hands is unacceptable or unusual.
It's important to do your research into how people communicate and interact between genders in your host country so that you can be sure you are understood in your new culture and do not accidentally get into situations that make you uncomfortable or put your safety at risk.
In some cultures, sexual harassment is more accepted, or there is less of a taboo against it. Cat-calling and other forms of street harassment are very common in many countries, often more common than in the US. It can be very upsetting to experience and it isn't always easy to know how to react. Street harassment can be frustrating and mentally tiring, especially when you experience it often. It is important to remember that if you are harassed, you did not cause the harassment to happen, and the harassment does not reflect on you.
In most cases of street harassment, it is best to completely ignore the harasser and remove yourself from the situation. Your first priority is your own safety, and moving away from the situation helps keep you safe. It is a good idea to ask your host university or program staff for advice and help in dealing with harassment in your host country. They can also help provide emotional support resources.